Saved? From What?

Scripture Readings

As so often happens, today’s gospel passage doesn’t mean what most people think it means. And as is very often the case, the misunderstanding has its roots deep in the history of our own Christian religious traditions themselves. Just look at the question that Jesus is asked: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Think about that for a moment. What comes to mind when you hear those words? Perhaps you may think of the Fatima prayer: “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell…” Would it surprise you to learn that salvation—and Jesus, our Savior—has nothing to do with hell? To understand salvation—and today’s gospel—we have to ask, what are we being saved from, and what are we being saved for?

In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh God is presented as the savior of Israel. Evidently, God saved Israel from slavery to the Egyptians. But more than that, God saves Israel from its enemies, from captivity, from famine, from pestilence, from utter destruction. Even when the salvation comes through the instrumentality of a king or hero, they still see God as the author of their salvation. They also see the predicaments that Israel found itself in as their own fault. They understood that misfortunes came upon them because of Israel’s insistence on doing things their own way. That’s infidelity to its covenant with God—and that is Israel’s sin. They understood that only God had the power to save the people from their own foolishness.

In time, Israel came to understand that the foolishness of the nation was made up of the collective foolishness of individuals. They understood that individuals, as well as the nation itself, were in need of rescuing. For a Jewish person, salvation meant victory over anything that threatened them: victory over sickness, weakness, poverty, enemies, or failures. It especially meant victory over the ultimate threat, death. Listen to Psalm 30 [1-4]. “I will extol you, O Lord, for you drew me clear and did not let my enemies rejoice over me. O Lord, you brought me up from the nether world; you preserved me from those going down to the pit.” And by the way, “the pit” is simply the abode of the dead, and nothing like what we imagine as “hell.”

So, for the ancient Israelites, salvation meant God’s victory over their trials and tribulations both as a nation and as individuals. The question posed in today’s gospel is not about the difficulties that the nation found itself in, but the question was asking about individual salvation. To better understand what he was asking, let’s turn to the book of Genesis and the story of the fall.

As we all know, the story begins with man and woman—representing you and me—in a garden where all their needs were cared for so long as they lived in harmony with the will of God. Yet, as soon as their selfish pride tempted them to rely on their own cleverness and do things their own way, they lost out. What they gained from their refusal to accept and surrender to the will of God was futility. Listen to how Genesis describes their punishment. “To the woman [God] said: ‘I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ To the man he said: […] ‘Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” Futility is the lot of humankind left to its own devices, and the ultimate futility is death.

What, then is salvation? Salvation is God’s victory over human futility. That’s what Saint Paul was talking about when he wrote in his letter to the Romans [8:20-21], “…creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” So, we hope to be saved from the futility of sin and death, and to be saved for freedom as children of God to live in peace and harmony in his kingdom now and forever.

Let’s turn back to the question from today’s gospel, “…will only a few people be saved?” Jesus doesn’t answer the question. Salvation isn’t a question of numbers. What he does say is this: don’t take it for granted. Just because you’re a follower of the law, or just because you’re baptized and call yourself a “Christian” doesn’t mean you’re saved from futility and death. We’re challenged to overcome the temptation to do things our own way and the temptation to give free reign to our selfish egos. That takes hard work. There is no easier, softer way. Jesus tells his followers to strive to enter the narrow gate. The Greek word that we translate “strive” is αγωνιζομαι (agōnizomai) and has the word “agony” in it. It means strenuous exertion. And Jesus warns that “many…will not be strong enough.”

There are three things necessary to gain salvation from the tyranny of the ego: first, knowledge of God’s will for us. That comes only through prayer and meditation. Second, acceptance of God’s will for us. That requires a willingness to let God’s will take precedence over our own. The third necessity is surrender to the will and power of God. On our own, we’re powerless to save ourselves. Even if we could, we wouldn’t know how. Futility is built into our human condition, yet we strive to be willing to let God run the show. Isn’t that the essence of Christ’s agony in the garden? Didn’t he pray, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” [Luke 22:42]? Jesus’s ultimate surrender to the will of the Father seemed absurd because it led him to crucifixion and death. But, in the end, it also led to the Resurrection.

When the path ahead looks too hard for us and God’s will seems too heavy to bear, we might make Jesus’s prayer our own simply by saying to ourselves, “I can’t; God can; I think I’ll let him.”

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